Villanova's message in Xavier win? Bet on us in March

CINCINNATI -- The flash of the first half had disappeared.

And that's when No. 3 Villanova sent a group text to the field with a resilient second half in a 95-79 win at No. 4 Xavier: We're the team to beat in March.

In a murky, national climate without a dominant regular-season force like 2014-15 Kentucky -- maybe without a 2016-17 Kentucky -- Villanova offered the most convincing argument of its preeminence in Saturday's lopsided win over a squad with Final Four talent.

The victory started with Nova's 11-for-19 effort from the 3-point line in the first half.

"It makes you kinda upset because you think you're playing good defense and they just make the shot," said Xavier's Naji Marshall.

But the same Villanova squad that had come into Xavier's Cintas Center -- with the winner probably merging onto the inside track for a 1-seed -- and hit 3-pointers in the first half as if Dan Majerle, Steve Kerr and Craig Hodges had joined forces for a night, went cold like the brisk weather system that dropped snow and slush on the city Saturday afternoon.

The Wildcats started the second half by missing their first seven 3-point attempts. Then, Xavier began to charge. And Nova's favorable halftime lead disappeared.

Eric Paschall drew a fourth foul. Then, Mikal Bridges picked up his fourth foul, too, all with Phil Booth (11.6 PPG, 43 percent from the 3-point line) sidelined for his seventh consecutive game because of a wrist injury.

Xavier enjoyed a 22-5 discrepancy at the free throw line, too. And the 10,000 strong at the Cintas Center, some of whom had gathered outside the arena just after breakfast for a game that tipped at 4:30 p.m. ET, rose to support their squad.

You could feel the shift.

But forget the play-by-play and consider the moment.

Villanova had encountered an NCAA tournament-like situation in the second half against a team the selection committee had called a 1-seed in its official projections Sunday.

Sometimes the shots stop falling in March. Key players draw troubling fouls. Glue guys get hurt. The crowd turns. The momentum escapes.

In that scenario Saturday, Villanova maintained its edge and made its case as a powerful threat to win its second national title in three years.

Paschall, cautious with four fouls, snuck behind Paul Scruggs for a late turnover that Collin Gillespie converted into a 3-pointer on the other end.

The Wildcats blocked shots. The 6-foot Gillespie drove inside like a young man who believes he's a foot taller. Donte Divincenzo collected big shots late. Omari Spellman (11 points, two blocks) talked trash all night and backed it up. Bridges (25 points, 4-for-7 from the 3-point line) looked like a lottery pick.

In a game that had Selection Sunday and Big East implications, the Wildcats showcased the competitive level only they can reach.

Yes, they stumbled at Providence last week and lost to St. John's at home. Butler dropped 101 points on them in December. America's most efficient offense, however, also has a 16-point win over Gonzaga, a nine-point win over Tennessee and a pair of wins over Xavier by a combined 40 points -- the second of which the team achieved without Booth, the No. 4 scorer on its roster.

Plus, the Wildcats haven't lost back-to-back games since 2013.

We might not have a great team in college basketball. But Villanova, at its best, is as close as we'll get.

On Saturday, the Wildcats demonstrated the Villanova basketball brand Jay Wright and his players raved about following the win.

It's the same gritty, fearless style that helped the program capture the national title in 2016.

"That team had guys that would do all those little things," Wright said. "We had a year when we came in here and [former guard] Josh Hart played the 5-spot. No complaints. These guys are the same."

In the final minute of Saturday's win, the Wildcats clapped softly and nodded their heads in approval of their performance. Whatever happened at Providence earlier in the week no longer mattered.

Neither did the energized, opposing crowd at Xavier.

They had a Big East title and No. 1 seed to pursue.

And even after they began to unravel late, they put themselves back together. That's what good teams do.

Champions, however, can do it in the same half.

"I think the thing that [Wright] has is a great culture," said Chris Mack after Villanova set a record for a Xavier opponent with 16 3-pointers. "If they shoot the ball the way they did [Saturday], it will take a monumental effort to beat them."